Jeff Flake entered the race more than a year and a half ago as Arizona’s U.S. senator in waiting, only to end up facing the Democrats’ toughest candidate in a quarter century. But the Democrats’ best play for an Arizona Senate seat since 1988 wasn’t enough to keep the six-term congressman down.
Flake defeated former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona, 51 percent to 45. The Mesa Republican’s 89,000-vote win in one of the hottest U.S. Senate races in the country keeps the open seat in Republican hands following the retirement of soon-to-be former U.S. Jon Kyl.
On an election night when Republicans lost tight U.S. Senate races across the country and failed to unseat President Barack Obama, Flake said the win was “very gratifying,” especially considering the tough fight Carmona put up in a state where Democrats haven’t competed for a Senate seat in decades.
“Republicans in states more Republicans than this were having trouble, and some didn’t make it, so I can tell you we’re happy with the win. Dr. Carmona ran a good race and we’re pleased with the win,” Flake said. “We always ran like we were two points behind. That’s why we’re six points up now. He ran a good race. We had a great team and I think our message won out.”
Carmona was heavily recruited into the race by national Democrats, including President Barack Obama, and mounted a surprisingly strong challenge to Flake. For months, polling showed the independent-turned-Democrat within the margin of error against Flake, making Arizona one of the most closely watched U.S. Senate races in the country.
But despite a stellar resume, his energizing of Latino voters and millions in outside spending by Democratic groups, Carmona appeared unable to overcome Arizona’s GOP registration advantage or Flake’s appeal as a reformer with a track record of cutting spending and eradicating earmarks.
Carmona spokesman Andy Barr said Carmona ran a stronger campaign than Flake, but fell short due to the GOP’s sizeable voter registration advantage in Arizona.
“We ran a hell of a campaign. We had a great candidate. And I think we ran a lot closer than anyone gave us a shot to,” Barr said. “It’s disappointing because he deserves it. He, more than anyone else we’ve run in a long time, he more than anyone else they’ve run, deserves to be a U.S. senator.”
While Republicans warned that defeating Carmona could be the deciding factor in giving the GOP control of the U.S. Senate, the race will have no bearing. Democrats will keep control of the chamber.
Flake said the Democrats’ victories in other U.S. Senate races and Obama’s win over Republican nominee were disheartening.
“I was very disappointed. I’m certainly happy for my own race, but disappointed at the overall result,” he said.
Democratic wins outside of Arizona will make it difficult to achieve Republican goals such as overturning the Affordable Care Act, Flake said. But the senator-elect said he still hoped to pass a budget out of the U.S. Senate and work with the White House.
“Bill Clinton in his second term did some things that he wasn’t willing to do in his first term. So hopefully we can get the president to move,” Flake said.
Flake raised about $7.3 million in the race, while Carmona, who faced no primary challenge, brought in about $5.4 million.
In addition, Independent expenditure groups, from conservative outfits like the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Club for Growth to Democratic groups like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and VoteVets, inundated the airwaves with ads, spending more than $14 million in the process. Former President Bill Clinton even came to Arizona for a concert and rally to boost Carmona’s prospects.
The conservative anti-tax group Club for Growth, a major backer of Flake that put millions into the race, congratulated Flake on his victory.
“Jeff won because of his pro-growth message, and we are confident that he will carry his deeply-held belief in the power of economic freedom to the United States Senate,” Club for Growth President Chris Chocola said in a press statement.
In his 12 years in Congress, Flake earned a reputation as a libertarian-leaning maverick who was unafraid to challenge the Republican Party’s status quo, especially in his quest to get rid of earmarks and other federal spending he deemed wasteful. During his campaign, he pledged to bring that attitude to the Senate, where he joins U.S. Sen. John McCain, long reputed as a reformer himself.
Carmona’s entry into the race last year gave Democrats optimism they hadn’t seen in a U.S. Senate race since Jon Kyl replaced retiring Democratic Sen. Dennis DeConcini. He had hoped to capitalize on a resume that included two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, longtime service with Pima County’s SWAT team and a stint as former President George W. Bush’s surgeon general, a position he was lauded for by Kyl and McCain.
Republicans, however, tied Carmona to Obama, who personally recruited him into the race last year, and the Affordable Care Act, the president’s signature health care law that remains unpopular in conservative Arizona.
Flake and national GOP groups that backed him also highlighted Carmona’s reputation for being temperamental and at times hostile. They painted him as a man who has problems with women, highlighting a former colleague’s accusations that Carmona angrily pounded on her door in the middle of the night while she was at home with her children. The former colleague, Cristina Beato, cut a scathing ad for Flake in which she described the encounter, which Carmona vigorously denied.
Meanwhile, Democrats attacked Flake as a career politician with a sketchy record on veteran’s issues, including voting against the most recent incarnation of the G.I. Bill. Environmentalists hit him as a former mining lobbyist who would open the Grand Canyon to uranium mining, while Carmona and Democratic groups from across the country touted Flake as “too extreme” for Arizona and sought to tie him to controversial remarks about rape and abortion made by Missouri Republican Todd Akin.
The race took its most contentious turn late in the game when Carmona released an ad featuring old footage of Kyl and McCain praising their fellow Arizonan during his 2002 surgeon general confirmation hearings. The two senators struck back, denouncing Carmona’s ad as “shameful” and “dishonest.”
Democrats have eyed Carmona as the candidate who would help push Arizona, traditionally one of the reddest of the red states, into purple, and possibly to blue as the state’s growing Latino population made Arizona more Democratic.
Flake’s aparent victory, along with GOP nominee Mitt Romney’s win of Arizona’s 11 electoral votes, confirms the state’s conservative credentials, at least for now. And considering the rarity of open U.S. Senate seats in Arizona, the 49-year-old Flake looks to hold the seat for the Republican Party for a long time to come.